China Helps Pave the Road to Paris with Ambitious Climate Pledge

Promising to steadily unhitch its economy from carbon, China steps forward as a major player in the movement to a global treaty.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang takes part in a news conference during a EU-China summit at the EU Council headquarters in Brussels on June 29, 2015. China has formal committed to making its carbon emissions peak by 2030 or sooner. Credit: REUTERS/Yves Herman

China formally pledged on Tuesday to play an ambitious role in curbing its carbon dioxide emissions over the next 15 years. It represented a major contribution toward the success of climate treaty talks by the world's biggest source of global warming pollution.

As had been expected, China said its carbon emissions would peak by 2030 or sooner, with carbon-free energy providing 20 percent of its needs. Its government also set a new, loftier goal for energy efficiency, saying that by 2030 the carbon intensity of its economy would fall by 60 to 65 percent compared to 2005. Its previous vow was 40 to 45 percent by 2020. And it promised to ramp up reforestation.

"A one-thousand-mile journey starts from the first step," the document declared, using one of China's most famous aphorisms. It was an apt expression, acknowledging that the world cannot solve the climate crisis all at once, but that leading nations must create credible momentum if calamity is to be averted.

Environmental advocates welcomed the development as the latest sign of China's determination to clean up its energy sector, backing away from coal and favoring wind and solar power. Many said that China might do even better than promised.

"China is largely motivated by its strong national interests to tackle persistent air pollution problems, limit climate impacts and expand its renewable energy job force," said Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute.

The European Union, the United States and China have now all presented their formal pledges to the United Nations climate treaty apparatus—called INDCs, for intended nationally determined contributions—bringing the global total to more than 40 nations.

China's formal pledge came as the United States and Brazil, at a meeting of their presidents in Washington, both also promised to obtain 20 percent of their energy supplies from wind, solar, biomass or other non-hydropower renewables by 2030. Brazil, which has yet to present its INDC, also promised stronger steps against deforestation, another factor in global warming.

The INDC pledges are a measurement of global ambition and are a key mechanism to keeping the climate talks on track to produce a treaty binding all nations to rein in carbon emissions. Progress has been halting since a meeting in Lima last December launched the final year of talks. They resumed in Bonn a few weeks ago and will continue off and on until culminating in the final talks in Paris in December.

Beijing's performance is supremely important. China accounted for more than a quarter of the world's emissions in 2013, and 1.5 times as much as the United States'; reversing its climb is one key to controlling the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide, which until recently was caused mostly by the United States and other industrialized nations. (On a per-capita basis, though, Chinese people emit much less carbon dioxide than Americans.)

China's promise, which goes a bit beyond what it agreed to do at a Sino-American summit in Beijing last September, brings more than half the world's emissions under reduction pledges.

The treaty's goal is to move toward the elimination of carbon dioxide emissions from energy use by late in the century, in an attempt to keep global warming from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius since the start of the fossil-fuel era.

Experts say China has already changed its course for the better, and that meaningful reductions in its emissions are within reach if it continues to follow aggressive strategies.

China may do even better than its own promises, amid continuing upheavals in its rapidly shifting economy and the world's at large.

Last year, for the first time, the global economy emitted less carbon dioxide without going through a global recession, a sign that economic growth may be decoupling from the fossil fuels that energized it for centuries. The shift was largely attributed to China's backing away from coal.

"China has now entered a new phase of economic development—a 'new normal'—focused on better quality growth," said a recent report by Nicholas Stern and colleagues at the Grantham Research Institute." From structural changes in the economy to explicit policies on efficiency, air pollution and clean energy, China's new development model is continuing to promote economic growth while driving down its greenhouse gas emissions.

"Analysing trends in the key emitting sectors, we conclude that China's GHG emissions are unlikely to peak as late as 2030—the upper limit set by President Xi Jinping in November 2014—and are much more likely to peak by 2025. They could peak even earlier than that. With a comprehensive approach to reform, they could also fall rapidly post-peak."

In a word, said Li Shuo, the senior climate and energy policy advisor for Greenpeace East Asia, China's outsized role puts it on the Paris stage as a full equal to the U.S. and the European Union.What's most important is China's determined shift away from coal, a reversal of decades of untrammelled growth.

"China's coal development is the single biggest determinator of our future climate," he said during a recent conference call with journalists. "Second would be, China's coal consumption is going through a very drastic transformation. This coal transformation is probably on the same scale and magnitude as the U.S. shale gas boom and its implication for the coal situation in the U.S., if not even more," he continued.

Achieving China's new goal to wean China's economy off of carbon would involve shifting trillions of dollars of investment capital from fossil fuels to renewable or nuclear power, developing methods of capturing carbon emissions and storing them underground, and enhancing the energy efficiency of vehicles, buildings and factories.

It would also depend on the success of China's new carbon trading markets that are taking hold nationwide, to cap emissions and put a price on them.

Shifts like these are more than a laundry list, according to China's INDC. They are a fundamentally new policy, one of "transforming the economic development pattern, constructing ecological civilization and holding to a green, low-carbon and recycled development path."

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